Sustainability expert Shannon Guihan on celebrating Earth Month during a global pandemic
Nowadays, it feels like there’s an awareness day or month for everything. However, some global markers are impossible to ignore. Earth Month and Earth Day, marked a unified response back in 1970 when 20 million Americans took to the streets to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet. Sound familiar?
The day was credited with launching the modern environmental movement, and now gives us all the chance to reflect on our actions and work together to help protect the world. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we sit down with the Chief TreadRight and Sustainability Officer, Shannon Guihan. She shares her personal sustainability story and her thoughts on what Earth Month really means today.
In the time of Covid-19
“This year, Earth Month arrives with particular poignancy. As The Travel Corporation celebrates its first 100 years, we also mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day – April 22, 1970 – which was the seed that grew into Earth Month. Now, in 2020, Earth Month comes in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, bringing much of life – and virtually all travel – to a standstill.
“Difficult as this is for all of us, it offers an opportunity to reflect on our relationship to this planet we all call home. This is especially true for those of us who have the great fortune to travel. If ever there was a time for a reset, this is it. With plans suddenly put on hold, it is a time to step back and ask ourselves some important questions. Why do we travel? What responsibilities come with our journeys? How do we want our travel to impact the planet we discover, the people we meet, and the wildlife we see?
“While this pandemic is new territory for everyone, for those of us at TreadRight, these questions aren’t new. They are what led to the TreadRight foundation a dozen years ago, what drives us to do the work we do each day. For me, personally, these are questions that have shaped my career.”
Growing up in Newfoundland
“I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I grew up in Paradise – just outside of St. John’s, Newfoundland, an island off the east coast of Canada. From my front door I could run through empty fields and make it to Topsail Beach to maybe spot a seal or two. Depending upon the time of year, every direction led to skiing, hiking, or paddling.
“Back then, the economy of Newfoundland & Labrador was largely based on the fishing industry, particularly cod. That all changed in the summer of 1992, when years of overfishing by multi-national interests had reduced the northern cod population to near zero. The Canadian government banned the practice of cod fishing and, overnight, the industry was near collapse. By the time I was 16, the tourism industry was kicking off quickly, and I soon found myself working as a sea kayak guide along the island’s rugged southern shore, with jagged cliffs above, swarms of jellyfish below, and, nearby, pods of fin, and minke and humpback whales that returned to the Grand Banks each summer to feed.
“What I saw in Newfoundland’s growing tourism industry left me perplexed. The same boats that once fished for cod now arrived full of tourists, chasing whales and interrupting their feeding. It seemed that “fisheries” had been replaced by “tourism,” and guided by much the same attitude: make money quickly, but turn a blind eye to protection. In the process of visiting ‘paradise’, tourists were trampling it. While not the intention, it was often the result.
“It seemed to me there must be a right way to discover natural beauty – and this was not it. Seeking to understand, I went to university where I studied Outdoor Recreation and Environmental Education, then on to graduate school for a Masters Degree in Tourism and Environmental Management, writing my thesis on “Codes of Conduct for Marine Ecotourism.”
Image source:Erik Mclean / Unsplash
Putting learnings into action
“Anxious to put my newfound understanding into practice, I joined the operations team of a niche tour operator, which allowed me to put sustainable practices into place. And yet, when I looked at the big picture, our impact was limited. The damage being done by tourism around the world was vast, and growing. From there I launched and built a tourism consultancy, where I was able to work with destinations worldwide to address the way in which they develop, sell and market their regions.
“During this time, TTC was a consulting client of mine, and as it came time for me to move beyond consulting, it was also clear that TTC wanted someone to take TreadRight and sustainability to the next level, looking to appoint their first Chief Sustainability Officer. I was intrigued but also a little wary. I knew full well that the ‘C’ in TTC stood for ‘corporation,’ and I’m a cynic when it comes to what corporations say and do in terms of sustainability – I’ve never wanted to play a part in corporate greenwashing.
“However, having worked alongside Brett Tollman and his team of executives for several years, I had seen the depth and sincerity of their commitment. We had worked closely on issues such as plastics in the travel industry, the impact of overtourism and support for micro enterprises. The passion they brought to the work had grown steadily more intense and focused, coming down to three words: Make Travel Matter.
“I took the job.”
The power of TreadRight
“We began by identifying the three critical areas in which travel has the greatest potential for impact: Planet, People, and Wildlife. With these as the three pillars of TreadRight, we looked to see who was doing the best work in each realm. This has led to us partnering with over fifty-five projects around the world, and a new, soon to be released company-wide strategy aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
“As you now take time to consider your future travels, I invite you to share in the inspiration I find each day from the people and communities with whom we partner, like Rosamira, Executive Director of Proyecto Tití, which protects the critically endangered cotton top tamarin in Colombia. Through WildlifeSOS in Jaipur, India, you will meet the truly impassioned people working to inform tourists and prevent the cruel practice of riding elephants. And nowhere will you find more impressive visionaries than Sam Judd and Camden Howitt, co-founders of Sustainable Coastlines in New Zealand. Last month – before travel was suspended, which now feels like a very long time ago – I spent an inspiring afternoon alongside other TTC volunteers, collecting and categorizing trash found on a New Zealand beach in the name of citizen science.
“So, during this Earth Month, I encourage everyone at home to learn about all these incredible partnerships and more at TreadRight.org. When the time comes to travel again, you’ll have the chance to visit and support many of our partners around the world, through the amazing itineraries offered by TTC’s brands.”
How does a travel brand tackle the climate change crisis? We ask The Travel Corporation CEO Brett Tollman
Making your travel matter
“I’d like to end with our most important partnership: You, our travelers. In addition to the visits you will be able to make with TTC’s companies to see and support these projects, a portion of every dollar you spend with every TTC company funds this work. Our mission is to help protect and preserve our planet, our people and their communities, and the wildlife of our beautiful fragile planet.
“Just as I began this post with questions, I’ll end with one more, for you. The time to travel will come again – hopefully, soon. When it does, how will you make travel matter?”
The original version of this interview appeared on The Travel Corporation’s blog here.